Addie Tsai interviews Zeyn Joukhadar

Addie Tsai:
I’m talking to Zeyn Joukhadar, author of The Thirty Names of Night, and I was wondering if we could… I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind introducing yourself quickly and—

Zeyn Joukhadar:
I can just drop a book. Yeah.

AT:
And just introducing the book a little bit. Oh I did have a question. We don’t want spoilers, I assume, right, so we’ll say? 

ZJ:
Okay, no spoilers. 

AT:
Okay, but I have been kind of curious about. I’m going to just do this all out of order. I’m just thinking this way, but…

ZJ:
That’s fine, that’s fine. 

AT:
Was it your decision, or did people just – I kind of thought that the, the narrator’s name was, you know, a mystery but then I just saw it written about all over the place. Did you have any feelings about it or were you sort of fine [with that]?

ZJ:
We had a discussion about this with my editor and the team at Atria [Books], just because I had made the decision, during the writing of the book, that I really wanted to have this – I can just grab it and show you – but I really wanted there to be this awareness in the reader that the character was withholding his first name, his deadname. And so having these crossouts at the start of his chapters were a conscious decision that I made going in. But I knew that when it came time to write the copies of the jacket and everything like that, I did think that it made sense to be able to talk about the character with the name that he chose for himself and I didn’t really think of it as a mystery. If anything, I was trying to say to the reader that the name itself is not the mystery. Not the dead name, or the birth name, not the new name. It’s just that there needs to be awareness that the character is existing and the reader is therefore existing with the character in the space between the time when he decides to choose a new name for himself, and the time we actually see him choose that name so that we’re in this in between space, this liminal space with the character, and the crossouts serve to make us aware of that, one, but also to give the character agency in saying, you know, the reader – a cis reader wanting to know this dead name – is itself something I’m pushing back against.

AT:
Since we’re talking about this, what about the other crossouts, because you have other crossouts with the other narrative, like the other timeline. And I was wondering if you can talk about that a little bit too?

ZJ:
While we’re talking about this, I’ll try to cover up some of the text so there’s no spoilers but yeah, so there’s, like, lines that are actually whole paragraphs that are crossed out later on in the book. This being a book with two timelines. One of which is epistolary, that being the found journal of this Syrian American bird artist, Laila Z. What I was trying to get at was that the characters in this book are trying to take control of their own narratives. And one of these narratives is a historical one. And so, this found journal, that becomes a historical document, is a diary. This journal that somebody wrote years and years ago and is found. But this person being a queer person. I’ve talked about this publicly elsewhere, so I don’t think it’s necessarily a spoiler to say it but this person Laila Z is very conscious as many people are about what she’s putting in her diary and what she wants people to read about her and so these crossouts are her way of trying, even as she’s writing in her own journal, which supposedly, no one else is supposed to see, there’s an awareness that if someone does see certain things, she still wants to have some control over what people know about her. And I think it’s sort of ambiguous as to whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. There’s her sort of setting boundaries and trying to have some control over the narrative about her but there’s also this self censorship as a queer person, where she doesn’t feel safe. Having even just writing something down and leaving it there feels unsafe. So there’s these two characters that are both erasing for different reasons and, and yet, trying to get at the same thing which is just autonomy over their stories and their narratives, and I think that’s something that we’re not often afforded and, especially queer and trans people, are not afforded that often in the historical archive. And if there are erasures made, we are not always the ones that get to choose where and when to make those erasures and there’s sort of, what’s the word I’m looking for, what we get to, like, didact, not didact, what’s the word that I’m looking for? Redactions.

AT:
Have you seen the TV show, Gentleman Jack? The British show? Okay, so I forget what her actual name is – 

ZJ:
I’m gonna go watch it though—

AT:
Yay! It’s based on a true story but it’s about this woman who’s one of the earliest women landowners in England, and is a lesbian, and she actually created this whole – all of these symbols in her diary to secretly discuss all of the relationships she was having with other women, because she knew that she could possibly be killed or just, all of these possible violences, that could happen to her if they found out that she was gay. And she had long term live in partnerships with other women. And let me actually – but yeah but she had created this whole, like, system of symbols to write in her diary so anyone who reads it’s not even going to, it’s not even in a known language. Let me find out what her name is real quick. But I think that, and that’s not something that has, I mean, I don’t think I’m up to date with this show, but that’s not something that’s even come out that much. Anne Lister. Yeah, so around the Industrial Revolution. That’s really cool. But I was… I was thinking about that as you were talking just, you know, how do queer and trans people create archives for themselves and for other trans and queer people going forward but still maintain the sense of safety around it, especially given that historically, I mean, we’re still in danger but historically, obviously the danger was even more clear and more prevalent? 

ZJ:
Yeah. Wow. Well, I’m definitely gonna check that show out.

AT:
That’s a fun lesbian – 

ZJ:
Yeah and I think it’s hard to assign a value judgment to that, right, like I think there’s in some way…

I don’t know maybe not all of us, but some of us, we often desire, a sort of neat way of assigning a positive or negative connotation to these things with, “Well we should be able to do X, Y or Z or it’s bad if we do this and it’s good if we do this” and I don’t know, are the erasures really bad? I don’t know. All I know is we so often have control over those things, even if it’s just, and like I said, if it’s a safety issue but also even if it’s just the way that we want things to be known about us or not known about us to people that are close to us or how we talked about this with our parents and our grandparents and other generations. And that was a big part of the book too: what do you do when you don’t necessarily share the language with older generations around queerness and transness? And also, when you don’t even necessarily primarily speak the same language. If you have grandparents or parents that are better native speakers of different languages, in this case, Arabic. And the way that sometimes, you know, for example, in this book there’s multiple characters that sort of use English, whether they knowingly or unknowingly – there can be uses of English that are turned into a power play against the parents because they are the ones that speak it better, or they’re able to sort of talkback or argue back in a way that the parent can’t quite respond to or can’t access. I don’t think there’s any, I can’t make any like sort of conclusive, I’m not trying to say anything, let’s say, conclusive about it except to say that these are really fraught dynamics, you know, and queerness is one of those things that hopefully we all want to be able to talk about, well, I don’t know if we all want that. But for those of us who do want to talk about this with our parents or our grandparents or their extended families, especially if we come from immigrant families, language in so many different ways becomes a possible helpful tool and becomes a point of contention, becomes a power thing, power dynamic and it’s just really complicated, I guess, is what I’m trying to say.

AT:
I was thinking about…this is sort of connected to my next question. Certainly the names are really powerful in this book, and not just in terms of transness, but I was also thinking about the way that names figure for immigrants too, especially thinking about how many people had to change their surnames when they came over here, or, I’m thinking about my father who, well, Chinese people tend to just create American names for themselves when they come over here because they don’t even – that’s their way of dealing with the pronunciation issue. I assume it’s different now but I remember when I was younger my stepsisters would pick a name, just any name that they wanted. My eldest stepsister’s boyfriend’s name was Peter because the first thing he ate when he came to the States was Peter Pan Peanut Butter. And so I was wondering, beyond Nadir’s journey to discovering what his name is, how do you feel that names are important in other ways in the book?

ZJ:
So this is an issue that gets briefly talked about in the book too, where the family does have their surnames changed and even some of the characters have their first names changed. That definitely happened in the Arab American community, too. I think it’s especially a thorny thing for trans people trying to decide when they change their name, trying to decide how to choose the name. There’s so many different rationales and we don’t have to get into that now but I think for Nadir when he’s trying to figure out what his name is – part of the book he is just taking us on the journey of the fact that he’s – in figuring out the name – what he’s actually trying to figure out is what is important to him, and who was important to him and what can he claim as legacy, I guess, is one way of thinking about it. I think that names, as a kind of way of honoring legacy, is one of the themes of the book. And so in the end Nadir means something to him in terms of – it means rare in Arabic, and a lot of that – I’m trying to do this without giving spoilers so I’m I’m choosing my words very carefully –

AT:
What do you prefer? I just always think that the author doesn’t want things spoiled. But if we do spoilers, then I have all kinds of questions for you!

ZJ:
We also cut them out later. If I accidentally let something slip. But I was gonna say that because this book is really about this search, on the surface anyway, it’s about the search for this rare bird that Nadir’s mother, who was an ornithologist saw before her death and also this bird artist Laila Z saw 60 years earlier. And so this bird links them and this bird is described consistently as being this rare bird. And as specifically as meaning something to the people who saw it, especially in terms of the fact that they saw this bird and they were not believed about it, but there’s a whole thing about how for example, like the third person, there were three people who saw this bird and a third person was an ornithologist but he was Black and so his colleagues were basically: “We don’t believe you.” This bird artist, and also Nadir’s mother were both women, and so they were also sort of written off as “Oh we don’t believe that you saw this bird because no one else has seen it so there’s this whole theme around who is actually listened to, one, who gets listened to, and two, who gets listened to even when they’re talking about themselves. And so I think for Nadir to choose this name meaning rare, and potentially having that be in reference to the bird, in a way, what he’s really trying to say is that he is the rare bird that’s not supposed to exist. He’s the rare bird that everybody says we don’t believe you. In terms of your own experience about yourself. And the way that you experience the world. So, I think that, given that there is this theme of, what is the legacy you’re claiming, and who are you claiming? What I really love about the name is that he’s not only saying all of that, about the fact that he’s listening to himself, in spite of other people not listening to his own experiences himself, but he’s also claiming his mother’s legacy in terms of saying, “I believe you that you did see this bird,” he’s claiming the legacy of this queer bird artist whose journal he finds and I won’t spoil how they’re connected but who is also connected to him and to his family. And so the name becomes a way to actually claim this queer legacy that is much greater than a sort of blood family legacy. And in that it means something to me that it’s a good reminder that a name can also be a way of claiming people and things and experiences that also lie beyond the scope of what society tells us we can belong to by blood. That we are family, that our sense of who our family is can be much greater than our blood family is and our sense of how we construct home can encompass much more and be much more inclusive than the traditional sense of you build your home within the cis hetero normative patriarchal structure of marriage and all of these things so there’s also that and the fact that that can be, if not included, then at least sort of gestured toward in a name is also, I think, cool.

AT:
Yeah, I also really love how in the Laila Z timeline we also have a different idea of a family structure with the child that comes into her life as well – so that, which I just really loved those particular details, not that those don’t happen in cishet novels, but I just feel like there’s a little wink also to queer and trans people and the different ways one can see love and construct a family unit.

ZJ:
Yeah, totally. It’s funny, no one ever asked about – well, maybe this is a spoiler, and we can cut this out if we need to but I’ve never, nobody’s ever asked me about that part of the book in particular actually, about how the child actually comes into their life and there is some conflict, I guess you could say, between Laila and Ilyas. They’re not on the same page initially. That this is a gift and a blessing that they could choose to take their lives in a certain direction together but, even in Laila herself. Even being somewhat aware of her queerness there’s this reticence. There’s this big hesitation that she has with her own internalized queerphobia that she’s like, well, but I don’t know, maybe this is okay for other people but is it okay for me and I like that. I like that it’s not simple, I guess. I like that there’s some room for these characters. What I was hoping for is that there would be room for these characters to find their way into self acceptance, that some people who have reviewed the book have said, but everything is just so positive and there’s a happy ending and so I expect this to be more complicated somehow or there’s an expectation of trauma and sad endings and I think of part of it that it’s just what you get a lot of the time as queer and trans people. We get all these sad endings and trauma, and there are a lot of heavy things and dark things that happen in the book but I like the fact that the characters actively have to make the choice to choose their happy ending which doesn’t come necessarily naturally to any of them. I think that’s probably more realistic.

AT:
No, I really love that about the book, in general, actually, because we do have so many tragic queer and trans stories. And they serve a very important purpose and certainly for, going back [in history]. But there’s something to question around it, not just going there as authors but also going there as publishers, always seeking that tragic story.

ZJ:
For sure. 

AT:
Laila Z creating this life with Ilyas… it actually reminds me of this moment I love in Stone Butch Blues –  and I don’t remember the name of the character but when the main character decides to transition and have top surgery and their partner says, “I’ve worked way too hard to fight to be discriminated against as a lesbian” and had this real tension within herself about being seen as a cishet pairing, even though her partner was trans and so I think that those tensions are so important because it’s just really complicated, and it, and I think it’s complicated in a way that the average cishet readership, probably – you know there’s layers to it and some of those layers are external and some of those layers are internal. And so I really liked that timeline, I mean I am curious about…I don’t know if this is too long a question but you know how this whole book —

ZJ:
Go for it.

AT:
How did this whole book come to be? Which narrative did you start with? Did you know you were gonna work with these dual timelines, was the second timeline coming out of actual research that you found in Arab American histories of queer and trans people, or is this your way of giving a nod to what you know exists? So I’m just curious about the whole birthing of this book and the way it’s kind of conceived now.

ZJ:
Yeah, no, it’s a great question. I’ll try to, like, answer it in as much of a nutshell as I can because the reality is this book went through so many different iterations before it actually … [Gasps, talks to partner off camera] Is this the book, did it finally come? I love you! I think a finished copy of my book has just been dropped on my desk. Can you find out? Yes!

AT:
Oh my god I can’t believe… this just happened!

ZJ:
This interview is now epic proportions. Oh, this live unboxing. 

AT:
Oh my god, I cannot believe that just happened!

ZJ:
This is the only copy I have!

AT:
Live, on air. At first, [when you were talking about this before,] I thought you were talking about a new book. I mean, I thought, you must have your actual book.

ZJ:
No! Yeah, I do now, in the last five seconds. We should do an interview all the time. Yeah. Blessings just fall into my lap.

That was pretty cool. Okay, so, um, where was I? So basically the novel went through a lot of different iterations, and forms, over, gosh, five years, four years. And it took me a really long time. And actually there’s a long time where I wasn’t really sure that it was going to come together and I was like, why did I sell this novel before it was completely finished? I actually said to myself, at a couple of points, what if this is one of those novels that becomes this giant mountain of material but it never comes together and I couldn’t figure out mostly. I knew that I wanted two timelines. I knew that, because I knew that I wanted to tell a story that was about how history is present with us and how we need to know our history in order to build our future and finding chosen family and building from that so I knew that those were the main themes. But I think one of the problems was starting with a theme, rather than an actual sort of premise that will drive a plot. You still have to build the engine, and I find that I often…I don’t know, I can’t really say that, often, I don’t know, what is often, but with this book I had trouble with that part. I had trouble with figuring out how am I going to address this particular theme within an engine that will maintain tension. But while there are a lot of really lovely literary novels [that] do that and basically this is a literary novel in that vein, but at the same time I did feel that I had trouble getting it to move. I had trouble getting the characters to move. Especially the protagonist, Nadir. In the early drafts of the novel it was impossible to get him to do anything, and writers will say that: why are you not doing what I want you to do but it was really impossible. He was so isolated and he was so cut off and did not want to talk to anyone and I think that, you know, now looking back I can understand why that was because in the early drafts of the book – I didn’t feel that I was ready to out myself and make this character trans. And so, originally, I was like, well, I’ll just write about a queer cis woman and they’ll be sort of safe and I felt that it would be more safe for me. And as I was workshopping the book at VONA I remember someone who’s now one of my best friends said in front of the group, there’s all this stuff about gender in here but it’s not addressed. And I had this moment where I was like, oh god, I can’t escape it. It’s in the text whether I want to acknowledge it or not. This character is giving clear signals at some point that this is what’s going on for them. And of course I was also not entirely aware of this but I was about to start my own transition so I think all of this is just to say that I tried to just follow this character on the journey that he needed to go on, which ended up being a different journey than I went on. It’s not an autobiographical thing. Eventually, it was through a lot of conversations with other writers especially that I remember I had one conversation with another writer, when I was briefly with him in Beirut. And we’re talking about migration. And I think that some of those conversations about returning to the themes made me want to write the book about, Well, I do want to talk about movement and I do want to talk about movement between generations and between genders and between gender presentations and between names and all of this. That finally allowed me to see that I needed the birds to have a greater role in the book, and I think it was actually the birds that ended up bringing it together. That was the thing that finally made me see, okay, I have the architecture in here. And now I understand how to tell this story, and this is the main search that needs to happen. But it’s hard to talk about that process in a way that sounds at all linear mostly because it wasn’t linear. It was a total mess.

AT:
So I’ve written epistolary/narrative novels, so I know not only that they’re difficult but also that they’re really hard to sell. They’re really hard to get people on board with them because publishers and agents are always worried about being able to carry the momentum, but you have epistolary, two really complex narratives, including ornithology, and history, and so I was wondering, what do you think was the real challenge of, taking on such a complicated structure, and in mainstream literary fiction. You know, this is not a tiny weird experimental press, this is also still trying to be really kind of palatable for the average reader also. So I was just wondering what was your sort of journey with that too?

ZJ:
Yeah, actually that’s a really good question and I kind of feel like it’s a question, it’s a thing we should talk about more in general as writers. I think sometimes there’s a feeling that it’s taboo to talk about that, Well, how do you – if you want this to be marketable in a certain kind of way, how did you take something that could very easily be seen as too experimental to be a certain kind of book and I think that, the thing – Are you okay? – Somebody fell! But they’re okay. – I think the thing that made it possible for it to, let’s say, be literary but mainstream enough or to a certain extent, was just the pacing and the maintenance of tension and that was probably the hardest part of the book, and I think it was very clear to me throughout the writing of the book that it wanted to be very literary and weird. I wanted it to be weird. I knew I was writing a weird book, even from the very early stages when I was like, to my agent, I think I’m writing this thing that’s about this. It sounds completely off the wall but I really love it. I think that was part of the reason why I rewrote it so many times because I couldn’t. I didn’t want to have a plot engine for the primary quest of the book. That felt forced. And so I knew that it had to be something very specific and something that was probably going to veer into the fabulist, but it still needed to have enough weight. And anyway, this is all basically to say that I had to wrestle with it a lot and there were a lot of drafts of me trying not to sacrifice tension to the atmospheric qualities of the novel, and also not vice versa. I think that the only way that it worked in the end is actually just, I had to invest a lot into my own understanding of the characters’ internal emotional motivations. And I also kept having to return to history. I think in the end it was the history that gave the weight, and the gravitas to what was going on in the present day story. And that, I mean, I think now I’m finally answering something you asked earlier, that was where I found the greatest richness of all of the stuff that I uncovered that I ended up needing to know to write this book was in the archives. For example, at the Arab American National Museum. I was an artist in residence there in 2019 and I had access to their oral history archives and their newspaper archives and let me tell you, there’s some amazing stuff that I went through and I listened to so many oral histories, for example, of Arab auto workers in Detroit. And I think, I’ve told this story in other interviews. I don’t know, I surprised myself as to how much this touched me but it really did touch me and that’s why I told the story so often. There was a moment where I was listening to these oral histories and I came across a recording of someone who described themselves as a woman, as a cis woman, but didn’t use that language. They said, I’m a female auto worker and I was in this business and I worked with all of these men and I dealt with a lot of misogyny and sexism, and a lot of harassment and she talked about her experiences that were, by themselves, pretty incredible to listen to, but also just listening to her talk. I don’t know obviously if this person was queer or not but I felt that I maybe recognized some speech patterns that I felt familiar with from all the other, queer women and butch women that I know in my own life and so I knew in that moment I was like, look, I don’t know anything about this person, but like, what if, though, right? I mean, even if not this person, surely there were queer people in this time and in this place and I think that moment of interacting with the archive and being like, it’s not all written down, it couldn’t all be written down, but I know that we were there, and that, in some way this book – I suppose you could see this book as being my attempt at making a contribution to or I guess encouraging us to reimagine the archive and try to fill in some of the blanks in the archive, especially for immigrant communities. There’s just so much that we couldn’t say even if we wanted to, you know.

AT:
Yeah, no, I love that idea. So, one question I had, and I’ll try to talk around the spoiler, is how the two families are connected, how the two timelines are connected. And I’m wondering given this idea of one of the things that gets talked about the end of the book is that the other person believes that they would never find one another, because their names are possibly changed and all of that. So I was wondering, did you always know that they would find one another, or was there a version where we learned their connection but they never reunite?

ZJ:
Actually, there was, which I find really astute that you figured out that there probably was. Yeah, I originally – should I even say this – let’s just say that it was very different, and that there was a family connection but that it was sort of something that was learned at the beginning and then it’s not necessary for the rest of the book and at some [point] during some draft of the book I realized that I was sort of giving away what could be the best piece of tension-driving information on the one hand and also that I remember having conversations, this is before I was out, when I first started drafting the book and I remember tentatively broaching the possibility of having the ending that currently is in the book. And I remember getting a lot of pushback from people that were in my life at the time that were, let’s say, that were very invested in my being closeted and being like, you can’t have that ending like that ending. It’s just there’s a high level of queerness in that ending and it’s risky and it’s whatever and now, I mean, it’s one of the things I love most about the book. But I think that, again, I went on a journey to becoming the person that could write this book, I guess is one way of saying it, and I’m really glad that I did because it wouldn’t have been the same book at all so there’s really no point saying it but also I kind of feel like if I had been unwilling to grow in some certain kinds of ways personally that I needed to grow in order to explore some of these themes, and if I hadn’t been willing to do that, the book would never have been finished, because there was only one way that it could actually, and I feel this way about everything I write. I’m sort of on a journey to figuring out the only way that it can end, the only way that the story can be told and be complete. And so, I don’t know, I think sometimes our writing can actually be a really wonderful gift that can push us in the direction of learning the things that we need to learn in our own lives, which is not to say that it should be a substitute for therapy because God knows therapy has been very important for me as well and we need to often work out things there before we work them out on the page but, sometimes, I think of my writing sometimes as like, I can give gifts to the characters that I also need to give to myself. I don’t know how else to say that or if it makes any sense but I guess it makes sense to me.

AT:
This is a somewhat personal question but I feel like for other writers that are possibly going through this, I was sort of curious about what it was like for you to actually come out during being a published author, you know, going from the last book to this book and if you have guidance for other writers who are thinking of doing this but feel like they don’t know how to given that they’ve already published a book with their dead name, and how did you navigate that. I imagine that must have just been… I can’t even imagine how difficult. I know that’s a trite way to respond to that. That must have just been really difficult and I wonder how your agent and the other parts of your team helped you. How you sort of worked through that.

ZJ:
Yeah, actually that’s a really important point and I feel like when I was doing it, when I was trying to figure out how to do it, I was really lucky in that there were a couple of other authors that had, that were just doing it, I think, one of them was Daniel Ortberg who I think now might go by Daniel Lavery. I’m not sure but he had just recently come out and I remember trying to find examples, including him, to give to my agent to be like, Here’s how this has been handled. I mean, they haven’t, my editor and my agent, hadn’t yet, I don’t think, had any other clients do this, clients or authors do this. But what was interesting was I had the same editor for my first book as for my second book and this book had already sold. And what was interesting was I sort of handled this in phases. I had a lot of fear at the time about it. I toured for my first book, knowing that I was trans, having already told my new name and pronouns to my friends and family. And having changed my appearance and still letting people deadname me because I hadn’t told anybody publicly. Mostly because I was afraid that I would tank the sales of the first book, and that was difficult. I emotionally tuned out how I was feeling about it and tried to just ride the adrenaline of the book tour and not think about it. And then later that year, when this book sold, I was aware this book is definitely going to be about a trans person and I’m going to have to probably, I wanted to tell my editor, and my agent that this was the deal and so I did when we presented the book. When we went to sell the book I was like, I’m willing to share this information that I’m not just a cis person writing about trans people. I am a trans person. And my editor, who, again, I had known for several years at this point and worked with on the book was amazing about the whole thing, and obviously, I feel really lucky that that was the case. And I think that my entire team of people that I worked at Atria[Books] and also my agent have been amazing about seeking out resources to educate themselves also and being willing to listen and being willing to learn and have done an amazing job at that. And for that I’m very grateful and I do think if there was one thing that I was going to sort of do over again, it would be to understand that I could have taken things at the pace that I wanted to take them in. I had a lot of fear about, well, maybe I should wait because the paperback of the first book is coming out and it wasn’t until the third edition of the paperback that they could change my name because of when I let them know so that wasn’t their fault. But I had all these fears about sales and about everything, and, in the end, my editor told me very gently she’s like, you know, you don’t have to wait to make some big, to release an essay about the fact that you’re doing this or to make some big [declaration], you can just do it, and you can do it whenever you feel comfortable. And so I did. I just did. It was February 2019, and I made an announcement on social media and that’s that. And everybody supported me and was like we’re with you. We’re fine with it. And of course, maybe I’ve lost some readers, but, you know, in the end, I also gained so many new readers that, I would want to go back and tell my previous self, you’re worrying about the wrong things. You have so much other stuff on your plate with the transition that you deserve to just be able to go at the pace that’s comfortable for you. So I think that’s the advice I would give folks is also to get your team on board and tell them, but people can also surprise you with how supportive they can be and I do have a lot of hope that the publishing industry is – let’s say there’s more and more people in publishing that are supportive of trans people, even as there are some very publicly, you know, vocally transphobic people. There’s also a surprising and growing number of folks who are very willing to support trans writers and want trans folks to be published and to be marketed well and to have support behind them. So, that was my journey and I hope other folks that are writers maybe early career or mid career that are thinking of coming out. I hope it’s heartening to them too. I was heartened by people that came before me.

AT:
So, that’s amazing. I’m thinking about Elliot Page coming out and just the more of these things happen, you know, the better it ends up being for other people to feel safe to come into it. But that’s incredible, though, that you were able to get the support. You answered my other question. I was wondering when were they able to reprint the first book with your name and that’s great too. Um, okay, and other questions. So I have a question about blood.

ZJ:
Let’s do it!

AT:
Because literally I have the words themes of faith, and then blood right underneath it. I’m curious about it for a number of reason, certainly, as a person who is assigned female at birth, I feel one of the things you’re never allowed to talk about, or has been something that’s been, culturally [stigmatized], you’re not allowed to talk about anything related to menstruation and anything related to menstrual bleeding and the bleeding that happens in this book is obviously different? It’s the result of – can we just talk about this – the result of an IUD and but also because the scenes of bleeding do happen throughout the book, I’m wondering, what do you feel the symbolism is around bleeding in general and how does it relate to other aspects of the book, too?

ZJ:
Yeah, this is also something no one has asked me about so I’m like, Oh, I get to talk about it. Alright, um, cuz I, similarly, no one asked me about this with the first book, but there’s also menstrual bleeding in the first book. So apparently. I remember thinking too like, are people gonna just be, like, you can’t, you can’t include this in the book but I did. Um, I put it in here too and I think it started originally because what I wanted to talk about was the way that AFAB people, people assigned female at birth, in general, are often just not listened to by their doctors, even in a gynecological medicine context, reproductive medicine context, they’re not listened to about their own bodies. And that’s true obviously of cis women but it’s also very true for trans people. I do think that, you know, gosh, I guess what I was trying to have an opportunity to talk about in the book was how difficult it is to get reproductive health care as a trans masculine person. And that even when you can access it which is not true for all of us, often, you know, either you’re not listened to in terms of what’s actually best for your body, or when you have complications or you’re in pain, there’s just this lack of care and some people have actually flagged this in the book as medical neglect. And I don’t think that I would argue with that. I think that you could look at it very much that way. And of course the character eventually finds a way to deal with this issue of having this IUD that is causing all these side effects and that at the beginning of the book and I don’t think it’s a spoiler. It’s in his first or second scene. He tries to get it removed and the doctor’s basically like, oh you’re fine. It’d be fine, just, like, give it some time. But he’s like I’m really suffering, but he’s not listened to. And what I kind of love about this is like, I mean, one of the things that is often taboo even among trans people, among trans masculine people, for, well, let’s just say that among trans masculine people in general, it can be very taboo to talk about the fact that a lot of us do get periods, and, even those of us who don’t want to or are told medically, well, you shouldn’t on this particular whatever medication or testosterone, you shouldn’t get a period but a lot of us do anyway. Um, it can be really hard to find space to talk about that without somebody immediately just being like, well, but see you’re a woman so whatever and being super transphobic about it, because menstruation [as] being equated with womanhood. In this super transphobic way. And so I kind of love the fact that you have this character who is a trans guy, who’s a non binary trans masculine person, more specifically, who does all of these things and goes on this entire quest in this book while he’s bleeding. That doesn’t invalidate his gender and, and it’s never actually in the book – it’s a source of dysphoria for him in certain ways, and it’s certainly a source of discomfort, but it’s not something that he views as invalidating what his gender is. I, don’t think I’ve actually seen a trans masculine person menstruating on the page, but that is part of it, and it’s not a part of everybody’s experience but it is a part of my experience of my own body, and I just think, Well, why can’t I talk about this?

AT:
I really love it actually, I think you’re right, too, in the sense that that is part of the trans masculine experience that doesn’t get discussed for a number of reasons, but I was also thinking about – Let me leap into faith conversation. But I was thinking about, what I’ve read about different religions and/or different spiritual states that there are certain, I’m very not well educated on most of them, but not being able to pray or going into temple if you’ve been menstruating that that even there, there is that connection to it even though this isn’t – the reason he’s bleeding isn’t because he’s menstruating, but that there’s certainly a relationship there too. I was just wondering about [if] that was at all an aspect of well – what I think’s interesting about the fact that that he bleeds through so much of the book is also that he doesn’t talk about it very often. There’s a lot of keeping the pain to himself so that he is suffering and is sort of attempting to look like he’s not suffering.

ZJ:
Yeah, I mean, I think part of that was just, this is gonna sound so bad, but part of that is such a part of my experience of dealing with my own body and being trans and being AFAB. I have endometriosis and I don’t think there’s anything taboo. There shouldn’t be anything taboo about saying that. There’s so many people that have it. But yeah, that’s true to life, that so many of us do suffer silently for so many reasons and certainly in terms of faith stuff. I mean, also in Islam, if you have your period, you can’t attain a state of religious purification, let’s say, so before you pray, you have to purify yourself with water or there are other ways of doing but primarily you wash yourself and wudu is the process of washing yourself before you pray, and if you are menstruating you just can’t. You can’t attain the state that you’re supposed to be in in order to pray and so, you know, but then there’s, so that’s something that is relevant to what this character is experiencing but there’s also the fact that, and this I think is much more sort of present in his mind, because it’s something that’s more immediate for what he’s going through, with trying to figure out if he should come out in terms of his gender. The fact that he has this moment where he’s trying to figure out, like, well, if I pray should I cover my head, should I not cover my head? Is it more important my experience of my gender or other people’s experience of my gender? How am I going to pray with other people now? How do I approach God or the divine? How do I find a new relationship with the divine? And I think ultimately that is a thing that ties a lot of stuff in the book together. Almost all of the characters in the book are seeking out some form of the divine. And a lot of them are seeking it out in an external way. It’s really early on in the book it’s said that Laila Z’s mother, for example is, is seen as this very religious woman but she actually is having an internal crisis of faith, where she is so struggling with her doubt that she has been praying. Laila Z’s family’s Christian, I should say, so her mother has been praying to God to show her an angel as a sign that there is a God and there are spoilers and then we’ll go further than that but let’s just say that she’s seeking that out. And then also, Nadir’s search for the divine is sort of internal where he wants to access some something that is sacred or wordless in his own experience of, let’s say, his embodiment or his presence in the world. He’s trying to figure out how to sort of get beyond the body and the language that we use to describe the body in order to feel that he can access something more true that lies behind it. And one of the ways he does that is through art because that’s a way of accessing the wordless but there’s a lot of different ways that he goes about that but I do think that it’s not an easy thing to talk about even now. I think it can still feel very taboo or scary for trans people to say that our lives can be sacred or that we could feel the presence of the divine in our lives or even in our own bodies, that we could feel sacred in that way. For a lot of people it is just off the table. But it was something that I wanted to explore. I think sometimes language got in the way of that, as it often does, you know, which I think is why there’s so much discussion of that sort of angst over language and trying to escape language and not just the language that we use for what we know, but also the language that other people use to describe us and. 

AT:
I was actually thinking when we were talking about this idea of pushing against the queer and trans tragic narrative, but I also feel like another way to push against that is the relationship of queerness and transness to religion and not making that also always this tragic story which is another way that often happens, where the person is cut off from religion or having to hide it from the people whom they practice their faith with or their family members so I also really love that about the book as well. These are just fun questions that I was thinking about. So I had no idea that you were this phenomenal visual artist until very recently. I was wondering, did you explore visually the bird narrative, and was there ever a conversation around including any illustrations throughout the book because there’s so much around the visual artistry of the bird itself, not just the physical bird?

ZJ:
That would have been really cool. I won’t lie. It crossed my mind where I was like, it would be so awesome but I think it seemed clear to me pretty early on that would just be on the level of production really expensive and so we couldn’t do that but one cool thing that we were able to do is that, right around, well actually, we put this together before I left the states, before the pandemic, so this is January or February of, 2019, or 2020. Time is – of 2020, and I basically was in our pre marketing meeting I was like, well, you know if you think it could be cool, I’ve been drawing birds for two years as a way of getting into this character. And I have a bunch of illustrations if they’re useful and somebody on the marketing team came up with the idea that we could make posters that we could send out to book bloggers and bookstagrammars and stuff. And that’s what we ended up doing and that was kind of cool, that, I started seeing my illustrations of the yellow crowned night heron popping up on Instagram on people’s desks. I was like this is wild.

AT:
That’s amazing, um, can I ask you about your artistic journey? Did you start with writing or did you start with visual art and was that a decision that you made at some point that you were going to pursue writing over the other?

ZJ:
My dad was a visual artist. He was a painter. And I enjoyed painting and drawing, mostly drawing, from the time that I was really little, but I entered into contests. I was never trained in it. And so, like a lot of other things that I sort of dabbled in, and maybe even more than dabbled in, I also used to sing semi-professionally. I love those things, but at some point I also knew that writing was something that I guess it was more emotionally, how do I say this? I want to say like it was more sort of emotionally supportive or what I actually mean is that I couldn’t not do it. I was addicted to it in a way where I wasn’t with some of the other things that I enjoyed. And so, writing was something that I did even when I was in graduate school getting my PhD in genetics and that was my first career. Even when I was in that super busy difficult period I was still writing just because I felt that I had to, or my brain would just become cluttered. With writing, it was just on another level. Writing is something that I do because that’s how I make sense of the world, especially for fiction. I just can’t give it up. There have been periods where I’ve tried, I just can’t. Whereas other things like visual art. I really love it and singing too. I love it and it brings me great joy and peace a lot of the time, but I will go periods where I may not pursue it as much. Whereas with writing it’s more of a constant. This was a nice opportunity to get to return to that, I think.

AT:
Yeah, that’s amazing. It’s not really a question. I love the way that food enters the book, and I was curious about – So, first of all, I was curious if you actually know how to make all those things, or this is something you watched and read about? Certainly from a cultural standpoint as an immigrant child that anytime – food is just so important to so many immigrant cultures and there’s so much that’s being said emotionally and there’s such connectivity that happens around sharing food but what I really love about the way that food enters this book is that we also get to see the process of actually preparing it when they’re baking the desserts especially, and so I was wondering about, what food means in the book, and if that was lived experience or if this was something that you looked into to integrate in a more tactile way?

ZJ:
All of the food stuff was basically lived experience. I cook a lot, and I have made the things that are described in the book. And I think that’s the scene in particular that you’re referring to, I don’t think it’s a spoiler, right, let’s say when these two characters are baking together. The thing that I really love about that scene… And I think this is maybe the thing I love about the inclusion of food in general, because there’s also the scene where Nadir is doing either cooking or in the kitchen with his grandmother with this. What I like about those scenes and I think that what I was trying to get at in a more emotional or thematic level is that I wanted to talk about part of some of the parts of what it can be like to be an AFAB person and being included in certain kinds of sisterhoods or certain kinds of all female spaces. But being a trans masculine person, and the very particular sort of unique pain and angst that can also come with that, where, especially when one is closeted and sort of feeling these spaces are important to me. They’re what I know. And yet, there’s something very invalidating or there’s something very alienating about this because I know that I don’t have the same experiences, and certainly don’t have the same sort of experience of my own gender as the cis women that I’m in the space with. But I think the exception, the slight twist to that, let’s say, is that scene when they’re baking is really cool because Sabah is later described or is sort of hinted at as being a queer woman herself. It’s unclear whether she is open about that to any degree. She certainly doesn’t come out to any of the characters in the book but there’s just a sort of quiet understanding when Nadir changes his gender presentation. She stops using pronouns for him. There’s an understanding there that other characters don’t have. And there is even hinted that she may not be cis, and we don’t actually know, we never find out. There’s this wonderful way in which they’re sharing this moment where both of these characters are AFAB, but neither of them are straight. And it may be that neither of them are cis, and they’re still sharing this, what would otherwise be considered a very gendered space, and a very gendered activity. And I think what I like about that is that it leaves open the possibility that some of these spaces and activities that are sort of described often or thought of by the cis heteropatriarchy as being specific to cis sisterhood. They don’t have to be that way. You know, and I really like that. 

AT:
No, I was just gonna say that I really love the queering of baking especially, because I feel like baking is just so gendered, you know, the association of it, and it’s interesting because it’s not really an experience that I have. My father mostly raised us, and one of the most vivid memories I have of him is him wearing this huge floral apron over his potbelly making cheesecakes for our bake sales, so it’s also like I’ve never actually had that experience but, but there’s so much of that feminized language around it, that I love the site of it as a site of a non normative connection. 

Thank you so much.

About Zeyn Joukhadar

Zeyn Joukhadar is the author of the novels The Thirty Names of Night, winner of the 2021 Stonewall Book Award and Lambda Literary finalist, and The Map of Salt and Stars, which was translated into twenty languages and won the 2018 Middle East Book Award. Joukhadar’s work has appeared in the Kink: Stories anthology, Salon, The Paris Review, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI) and a mentor with the Periplus Collective. 

About Addie Tsai

Addie Tsai (she/they) is a queer nonbinary artist and writer of color. They collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Addie holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and a PhD in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. She is the author of the queer Asian young adult novel Dear Twin, which made the 2021 Rainbow Book List, and received press in Autostraddle, Bustle, Barnes & Noble Teen Blog, the Montreal Review of Books, Lambda Literary Review, OutSmart Magazine, Shondaland, and others. Addie’s writing has been published in Foglifter, VIDA Lit, the Texas Review, Banango Street, The Offing, Room Magazine, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, Nat. Brut., and elsewhere. They are the Fiction Co-Editor at Anomaly, Staff Writer at Spectrum South, and Founding Editor & Editor in Chief at just femme & dandy.